COVID-19 blasted through the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton despite the toughness of the prisoners or their status amongst the gangsters throughout the prison.
“Out of the 11 years I’ve been locked up… 2020 was the worst!” said Ricky Roman, also known throughout the New Jersey State Prison as Double R. “COVID-19 either made you or broke you.”
Double R was serving an administrative segregation (ad-seg) sentence for fighting with officers in the visiting hall when he caught COVID-19, not once but twice.
When the virus first hit the prison, the state of New Jersey had not yet issued a mask mandate, and there was no guidance in prisons. It seemed like every second, a medical code blasted through the intercom.
“The first time that I saw someone with the virus, I was a tier porter in ad-seg,” Double R recalled. “The guy was in his cell in excruciating pain and no one cared.”
Inmates were dropping left and right. I witnessed an inmate laid out in front of his cell crying, begging for medical attention and saying, “I can’t breathe.” The inmate was wheeled to medical but back in a matter of hours.
The medical staff said they determined that he did not have COVID-19.
How could they have known so fast? At this time, the entire country was short on testing kits, and the New Jersey State Prison had no way to test inmates.
The very next day I walked past another guy who was a diabetic sitting on the ground with his back propped up against a wall. The inmate was demanding medical attention because he was having trouble breathing.
I can only imagine the plight of Double R and the rest of the inmates in ad-seg, a segregation unit that is under lockdown 24 hours a day with limited access to phones and the Jpay tablet kiosk, where we are permitted to send and receive electronic messages from our loved ones.
“It was like everybody in ad-seg had COVID-19. I would walk past dudes’ cells and they would be in bad shape,” Double R said. “Guys would give me their people’s phone numbers asking me to ‘call my people and let ’em know if something happens to me.’”
Double R had initially figured that ad-seg was the securest unit in the prison, so no one could get COVID-19, but the officers went in with no mask, coughing and acting like the virus was not a big deal.
Double R pointed out that COVID-19 was “just as real as this life sentence.”
Eventually, the prison kept cell units open to place inmates suspected of having COVID-19.
“The first time that I had COVID, I was fucked up,” Double R said, recalling how nurses came around to give him a test. “I spit in the tube, then prayed.”
At the time, inmates were being sent to the COVID-19 unit and didn’t come back. “Every time I heard a medical code called on one of those units, I just felt like it was one of them dudes that didn’t come back.”
Double R said he somehow managed to avoid being sent to the COVID-19 unit even though both he and his cellmate knew they had it. “We decided to take care of each other,” he said, adding that at least they would be in a place they felt was home.
Six months later, the entire prison was still on lockdown. There were no educational programs and no religious services. Inmates weren’t allowed to go to the mess hall or sit together at dining tables. Gym was cancelled and yard movements were limited to once every five days. If you had a cellmate, you were locked in the cell with him for 24 hours a day.
The second time that Double R caught COVID-19 there was no ducking a positive test. “My cellmate caught COVID-19 again, and he went straight to the infirmary because he couldn’t breathe,” said Double R. “I was taken to one of the dreaded COVID-19 units.”
Since the prison was locked down, the corrections officers (COs) disregarded their normal duties and became less approachable. Chores like cleaning were neglected.
“In this COVID-19 unit, it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years,” said Double R. “I asked the CO for cleaning supplies and he kept saying, ‘Later.’”
Shaking his head, Double R said this was happening while men were moaning, groaning and screaming “I can’t breathe!”
“Man, that was traumatizing,” he said as he rubbed his arms. “Look! I’m getting goosebumps talking about this shit!”
During this time, I was worried about my family outside too because I knew COVID-19 was very present everywhere in the world. I couldn’t find a moment to myself to think and put things into perspective. My anxiety kept building. In prison, it seemed like no one cared.
Double R said he felt the same way. “Everything just became black,” he said.
“How can a man have his eyes open and everything is still black?”
The perception of men behind bars is of men who are extremely hardcore, unaffected by the problems of normal human beings. As prisoners, we play to this image, passing ourselves off as the strongest, toughest, and gangsterest. But behind that front, we were men, who were suffering.
“I felt the walls getting smaller and smaller like they were about to crush me,” Double R looked at me with wide eyes. His fear was visible. “I felt trapped and hopeless. No yard, no passive rec, no gym, in a cell with another man all day while serving a life sentence.”
Eventually Double R had an anxiety attack, landing him in the infirmary for two days. “I felt like I was going to die alone,” he said, adding that the experience humbled him.
Believe it or not, it’s quite hard to be humbled in prison because there’s a continuum of negativity and everything is seen in a negative light. Real change is difficult to accomplish.
But Double R said having COVID-19 twice changed his life.
“I stopped caring about prison and became more focused on going home and my family. I want my kids to do something big with their lives, and I want to be there to see it,” Double R said. “I used to hold things in because I believed no one cared. But holding that in, and trying to stay strong, hurt me more. COVID-19 in 2020 was the darkest time in my life. Now in 2021, I’m a better human being, and I’m ready to be free!”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.